The World Will Listen Back
Where has our listening gone?
I’ve been listening more lately, heading out in the black morning without earbuds. Leaves beneath my feet rustle and I’m ready to rumble with them. If I’m listening to the world, the world will listen back. That’s the hope.
After weeks of gatherings with families and friends, Mark and I noticed a greater trend in listening. People are anxious to talk. Alot. They’ve bottled up so many of their stories. It’s imperative to pop them out at once. It’s as if their Zoom lives and real lives were on mute for 18 months, and perhaps they were.
This morning, I’m swishing around leaves beneath my treads to hear what they have to say and throwing myself into the experience that is the city, after attending the immersive Van Gogh exhibit at Newfields, the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
I’ve long been a fan of Vincent Van Gogh, his self-portrait eerily resembling the first person who introduced me to the painter, my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Redman, who insisted we too become passionate about Van Gogh’s passion for sunflowers. Next, my Uncle Dennis praised the genius of this 19th century painter. I’ve watched films and read books on VG, but the immersive experience brought me to tears, either due to Uncle Dennis’ recent death or by the accompanying music’s ability (the soundtrack is on Spotify) to carry me to the Van Gogh’s manic heights or submerge me in the suffocating depths of his despair.
The artist in me cannot help but be moved, to plunge further, and so I take in the city streets, and hear the loud brushstrokes on the streets’ canvases everywhere.
In the molded bricks that line my back alley, a sheen now present on them from centuries of tires and tired feet, the trowel swipes at mortar, chink, swipe, chink, swipe. In the ginkgo whose leaves pinged the lawn of Washington Park after a particularly harsh night, their fans giggle as they skitter across sidewalks and cartwheel over grassy knolls in a similar Japanese wood block carving style that influenced Van Gogh, their yellow leaves tinted to match the yellow of his Arles. The chisel taps on limestone to carve out rosettes that dance on the side of stoops or the face that menaces the keystone of our front door, a man I’ve named Oscar after one of the original occupants who is the ghost that haunts my home and taunts me in his mellowness while I work.
What was Van Gogh listening to as he painted (certainly not Spotify)? In his work, you feel silence, yet there are swirling winds, birds mid-caw, rivers running, and the muffled voices of washerwoman. The famous Dutchman is thought to have suffered from tinnitus as part of Ménière's disease. Medical historians now think van Gogh cut off part of his ear in attempted relief. Or he was responding to his own mantra, “If you hear a voice within you say, 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”
A writer too must silence the outside world to create an inner one. And once the inner world has been constructed, the writer must step out into the other world. But I’ve found the appeal of silence, how it shapes what I hear. If we’re not listening, we’re not immersing ourselves in the moment.
Perhaps Van Gogh got something right (other than his craft). By cutting off the ear, potentially muting the ring that perhaps drove him mad, he was forced to listen with one good ear. We always talk about ways in which to look at the world, but rarely are we advised on ways to listen in the world. Sometimes, it’s with a simple one foot in the front of the other, causing the leaves to whisper, or with one good ear to shut out the madness and land inside ourselves.
We’ve made a deal, the city and me. I’ll listen in the dark, which Van Gogh found to be “more alive and richly colored,” as the city yawns to wake, waiting to be heard. In return, the city must accept my long-winded, talking to myself rants or my truncated babbling brook of Italian cuss words, that cause people to wonder, “who is she talking to?”
The answer is the artist within.